The brash James T. Kirk tries to live up to his father’s legacy with Mr. Spock keeping him in check as a vengeful, time-traveling Romulan creates black holes to destroy the Federation one planet at a time.
Year 1, Day 319
BEFORE: As was the case four years ago when Star Trek came out, this film was my real motivation for going back to the previous films to prepare. I never was really interested in The Original Series or The Next Generation but wanted to be part of the Trek universe. J.J. Abram’s 2009 film gave me that opportunity. So, as I get ready for the advanced screening of the last film, Star Trek Into Darkness later tonight, I’m re-watching the film that really started it all for me and hopefully will be able to pinpoint why I have such a strong connection to this film in particular.
AFTER: I remember enjoying Star Trek but now I know why. In the past few days I’ve talked about many aspects of films, Trek-specific ones mostly. All of them, with the exception of Star Trek: First Contact always had something that missed the mark for me and even First Contact got full marks because I couldn’t pinpoint a singular reason. But I know why Star Trek has my unconditional respect and attention and it’s for something I haven’t really talked about yet: characters.
You can make the argument that any part of a film is the most important part, and now I’m going to make the argument for characters. Characters are the human element to the film; the most direct connection the viewer has with the screen. They can see themselves, friends, family, enemies in the people represented in the moving image. They speak the words, display the emotion, and perform the actions that are written for them. The primary reason that Star Trek succeeds is because of these characters. Before, you could understand bits and pieces of Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest of the gang but until now I didn’t really believe them. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban (Kirk, Spock, and Bones respectively) in addition to the large supporting cast are perfectly chosen. Kirk is a rebellious, bold, and daring smart alec, Spock is a logical and wise Vulcan who possesses the all-important human quality of emotion, and Bones is a sarcastic, brave coward who provides a questioning voice. In previous Trek films you could see these traits, but in all honesty the characters felt flat and lifeless. Don’t get me wrong, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley gave fantastic performances, some of the time at least (Nimoy especially at the end of The Wrath of Khan). But in Star Trek I saw what was missing from all the others: a spark, a true connection between everyone. No longer was it like watching people act out a script on screen. Star Trek felt natural, as if the actors were their characters and weren’t just playing a part. And this perfect characterization goes a long way in helping the rest of the film.
Speaking of the rest of the film, we have the two other main components which I covered extensively for the previous films: story and action. The story is ingenious on many levels. First and foremost, it is beautifully written for both newcomer and fan alike. I think the best part about the story is that it sums up the entire Star Trek mythology in the first few scenes, and in such an easy to understand way, that it’s like this is the first Trek creation. So all this “preparing” I’ve been doing, catching up on the old films, isn’t really necessary because everything I need to know is clearly explained within the first ten minutes. Having prior knowledge though doesn’t make it boring. For a Star Trek fan there are countless references and minor details that will provide even more color to the universe that a newcomer might gloss over (“Damn it Jim, I am a Doctor”, the red-shirt guy, the Kobayashi Maru test). And not only does it adhere to canon, but it also gives itself freedom by creating an alternate universe which means that if minor details don’t line up (like the death of Kirk’s father), it’s all covered because this isn’t the same Star Trek. It pays homage while still remaining it’s own.
Action-wise, the film also delivers ten-fold. I’m aware that the older films “look bad” today but were quite groundbreaking when released. I covered this point in depth in those reviews. But now I don’t have to imagine any longer what the filmmakers are actually trying to depict. No matter how much I try to change my point of view to appreciate what was done thirty years ago, it’s not going to change the fact that the effects will still not be anywhere near as good as they are today. That being said, looking at Star Trek in comparison to other modern day films, the effects are at the top of their class. Yes, they have things like space and phaser battles looking spectacular but the real magic I think happens in the more subtler places: design. Just the look of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the other starships, and locations on Earth (i.e. Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, Vulcan, etc.) are so good they look real. No longer does it look like a model flying in front of a green-screen, but instead a correctly proportioned (read: ginormous) and physics-obeying starship occupies the space it takes. Many might complain about the overuse of Abrams’ favorite effect, lens flares, or even an excess of unnecessary destruction. To that I say: bring it on, it only adds to the tone and feel of the film.
In case there was any doubt left in your mind, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is by far my favorite of the Trek franchise (that is until I see the new one; then I’ll have to re-evaluate). Not only does it understand who the characters are and let them come to life, but it’s visuals and accompanying story are just mesmerizing. For old fans and newcomers alike, Star Trek is the film made for you. As someone who’s from the middle (not a die-hard fan but is familiar with the universe), this is the perfect Trek film because it explains just enough and pays homage to what was, while not being afraid to go in its own direction, and really, bring Star Trek back to its glory days.
RATING: 5 out of 5